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Piecing Together a Historic Puzzle

Architecture Research Team Analyzes Thousands of Glass, Ceramic Artifacts to Shed Light on Centuries-Old Plantation

By Annie Dankelson

Students label glass pieces

Terps Olivia Meoni ’21 (left) and Paul Albert label pieces of glass in Preinkert Hall as part of the vesselization process to determine the number and type of vessels excavated from the Kippax Plantation, where the granddaughter of Pocahontas once lived. Below, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (left) and Professor Donald Linebaugh, who’s been working on the research since 1981, unveil a historic marker commemorating the site last month.

Photos from lab by Stephanie S. Cordle; historic marker photo courtesy of Rob Hunter

In a hushed Preinkert Hall room, a group of Terps gathers around a table with a different kind of homework in front of them. Instead of books or laptops, they surround tray after tray of broken glass.

As they carefully analyze the shards, affixing tiny numeric labels with what looks like clear nail polish, in the background stand examples of what they’re working toward: reconstructed old wine bottles, dark and jagged around the edges, held together with blue painter’s tape.

“It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle that’s black, in three dimensions,” said historic preservation Professor Donald Linebaugh, who, along with postdoctoral associate Stefan Woehlke, is leading the project—which is also piecing together the history of generations of American settlers, enslaved people and the Indigenous people they encountered.

Labeled glass pieces

The painstaking process is part of Linebaugh’s 40-year study of the Kippax Plantation Archaeological Site, a Virginia property built in the late 17th century by Col. Robert Bolling and his wife, Jane Rolfe, the granddaughter of Pocahontas. With help from a Chesapeake Material Cultural Studies Grant from the Conservation Fund, the research team has completed a similar “vesselization” of thousands of excavated ceramic fragments. Now, they’re going through the same steps with glass, hoping to uncover more clues about life on the plantation.

“Glass was the plastic of its time,” Woehlke said of the wine bottles, stemware, perfume containers and medicine jars they’ve found. “There’s a lot you can learn from glass, especially once they start using molds that have labels built into them. You can at least get an idea of what the original use of that glass vessel was.”

Linebaugh, who has been working on the site since he was a graduate student at the College of William and Mary in 1981, has brought dozens of his own students to the property over the years. The dishes, tools, beads and other artifacts they’ve uncovered have offered insights about the interconnectivity of European immigrants—from the Bollings in 1660 to a family called the Hereticks in 1917—Native Americans and African American slaves. In 1726, for instance, Robert Bolling’s son Drury had an inventory that listed 13 enslaved men, women and children.

The glass vesselization is the study’s latest stage. After the Terp team labels each of the thousands of shards with an adhesive called B-72, it’ll be able to keep track of the fragments’ original locations while attempting to piece whole artifacts back together. Just like puzzle solvers might try to work from a corner, the bases and rims of bottles, where glass is usually thickest and best preserved, are key as the researchers work to determine the number and type of vessels they have.

That process will add to the estimated 950 ceramic vessels the team has already identified over the past year. Though further analysis is needed, the researchers said, the items still provide some hints about plantation life; for example, most of the items found from the property’s slave quarters are hollowware, such as bowls, suggesting more stews or soups were served than meat dishes.

“That follows the pattern of what we see at other slave quarters,” Linebaugh said, “and it then links to people that are doing research on foodways among enslaved Africans during that period.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and Professor Donald Linebaugh with Kippax Plantation historic marker

In the meantime, on the heels of a historic marker dedication ceremony at the Kippax Plantation last month—Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Linebaugh and descendants of some of the plantation’s residents were among the attendees—a group of ceramics experts is slated to visit campus in the coming weeks to view the artifacts and contribute their specialized expertise to the project.

“It’s the best of both worlds, because we have the historical record, which gives us names, gives us dates,” Woehlke said. “But then the material culture can answer some of those questions about the past that people didn’t think to write about because it was part of everyday existence.”

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